Most people do not look forward to seeing their dentist. Surveys about the most loved or hated professions are often not kind to dentists.
Perhaps this is why dentists are sometimes portrayed as sinister characters in movies. For example, in Little Shop of Horrors, Steve Martin plays Orin, the evil dentist. In one song, he quotes his mom, singing: “You have a talent for causin’ things pain. Son, be a dentist. People will pay you to be inhumane.” And how about the sadistic dentist played by Laurence Olivier interrogating and torturing Dustin Hoffman’s character with a dental drill in Marathon Man? These characters seem to play on the fear many people have of seeing their dentist and getting dental care that may be painful.
While it’s true that going to the dentist isn’t at the top of things I do for fun, it usually isn’t thatbad. Unlike Orin, my dentist is great about making sure I’m numb before getting to work.
Dentists, of course, just want to do what’s best for their patients’ oral health. Your experience at the dentist should generally be pain-free, given modern medications and procedures.
Myths about teeth abound. Perhaps you’ve wondered about how to whiten stained teeth or what people mean when they say they have “soft teeth.” Maybe you never had a chance to ask your dentist—it’s hard to do when your mouth is full of instruments!
Here are five of my favorite dental myths:
1. All stains can be easily whitened or cleaned away.
Many things can discolor teeth, but not all of them can be fixed by a professional cleaning or tooth-whitening procedure. Tobacco, coffee and some foods can cause teeth to turn yellow or brown. Ingesting or inhaling certain metals can also change tooth color. For example, copper can turn teeth green, while mercury can turn them black. These stains usually come off easily with either a professional cleaning or a tooth-whitening procedure.
The discoloration related to damage or death of the pulp, the soft core of the tooth that contains blood vessels and nerves, is harder to fix, but it’s not impossible. The procedure involves putting bleach into the part of the tooth that contains the pulp.
Some stains just don’t respond well to whitening or cleaning. To deal with these types of stains, you generally need to get a procedure called bonding, in which a dentist paints a plasticlike material onto the tooth. For example, taking the antibiotic tetracycline in childhood, when your permanent teeth are developing, can cause stains that are hard or impossible to whiten. Or if your childhood drinking water had an excess of certain minerals in it, such as copper or silver, your teeth may be uneven in color.
Ironically, too much tooth whitening can make teeth look gray, because it turns the teeth translucent. How much whitening is too much differs from person to person, says Dr. John D. Da Silva of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. “It varies depending on tooth size, shape and thickness of enamel. That’s one of the reasons why you should see your dentist before bleaching your teeth,” he says.
2. “Soft” teeth cause cavities.
You may have heard someone say he has “soft” teeth and that’s why he gets lots of cavities. The truth is that teeth are hard. The enamel that covers the part of the teeth above the gum line is the hardest substance in the human body. It’s not softness that causes cavities—in fact, cavities are formed when acid produced by bacteria dissolves the hard enamel. This missing enamel (the “soft spot” in the tooth) is the cavity. But the tooth itself is not soft.
Some people are more susceptible to cavities and other mouth problems. But that’s not because their teeth are soft, it’s because of a mix of genetics, what they eat, medical problems they have, medications they take and how well they take care of their teeth.
3. Chewing gum is bad for your teeth.
This one’s partly true. Chewing gum of any kind increases saliva production—a good thing, because saliva cleans the teeth and neutralizes acid. The sugar found in some gum, however, feeds bacteria. So whether gum is good for you or not depends on whether it’s sugar-free or not. Sugar-free gum can actually be good for teeth; it seems that a particular type of artificial sweetener, xylitol, fights oral bacteria better than other types of sweeteners.
4. Fluoride is unsafe.
Studies show that adding fluoride to a community’s drinking water is associated with a 50 percent to 70 percent drop in the level of tooth decay. The widespread fluoridation of drinking water is often cited as one of the greatest public-health accomplishments of the 20th century.
Yet rumors linking fluoride to health problems abound. It gets connected to heart disease, allergies and genetic abnormalities, to name a few. But numerous studies refute claims that the current level of fluoride in drinking water causes these problems. And many important health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association, support fluoridation.
That said, fluoride can be dangerous—even lethal—if you ingest excessive amounts—2.5 to 5 grams for an average adult. However, that would mean drinking 5,000 to 10,000 glasses of fluoridated water in one sitting. The biggest poisoning danger is for children who get into improperly stored fluoride tablets or ingest a large amount of a fluoridated toothpaste or mouth rinse.
5. Old people actually get “long in the tooth.”
OK, I doubt many people actually believe this. Maybe this one isn’t so much a myth as it is a phrase that reflects an interesting dental phenomenon: The gums of humans and certain animals (especially horses) tend to pull away from the teeth as they age. This makes the teeth appear to be getting longer. This phrase refers to anything old, worn out or old-fashioned.
By the way, the relationship between a horse’s age and the appearance of its teeth also explains the phrase “never look a gift horse in the mouth.” If someone gave you a horse as a gift, it would be rude to immediately look at its teeth to see how old—and therefore how valuable—it is. It would be like looking at a gift’s label or its price tag in front of the gift giver—not polite!
Maybe it’s too much to expect that you’ll actually look forward to seeing your dentist every visit. But considering what we put our teeth through over a lifetime, it’s worth taking good care of your teeth and knowing the difference between dental myths and facts.